On October 27, 2010, Daily Show host, John Stewart, called President Obama “Dude” on national TV. It triggered a spate of hand-wringing opinion pieces about whether it was inappropriate for a talk-show comedian to call the President “Dude.” (See, for example, Wall Street Journal, LA Times).
But regardless of where you fall on that issue, Barack Obama was not the first “Dude” President. President Chester (“Chet”) A. Arthur, who succeeded to the Presidency after President Garfield was assassinated, was known by the nickname, “Dude President,” and President Roosevelt, who succeeded to the Presidency after President McKinley was assassinated, had been known as a “Dude,” since at least 1884.
Chester A. Arthur
Chester (“Chet”) A. Arthur had the rare misfortune to be president at the very moment that the word, “Dude,” came into being. He became President in 1881, when President Garfield was assassinated; the word, “Dude,” came to prominence in early 1883. Arthur also had the fortune – literally – to afford to dress like a “Dude”:
He was known as the “Dude President,” because of his elegances of dress and surroundings, and when his term was over, and he went back to his lawyer’s office in New York, he was instantly forgotten.
The Pall Mall Budget (London), Volume 34, Number 948, November 25, 1886, pages 5-6.
But in 1880, the “Dude” (and other Presidential hopefuls) looked more like a lady while going through their paces at, "The Full Dress Rehearsal of the Grand Presidential Corps de Ballet":
|Arthur is down on one knee, looking up; the eventual Republican nominee, Garfield, is on the left, holding his ankle (From the National Portrait Gallery).|
The original “Dude” poem was published in book form, with a cover illustration showing a “Dude” descending a staircase; a flower in his lapel. A portrait of Arthur, striking a similar Dude-like pose, was displayed in the White House in 1883[i]:
The President is represented as descending a pair of stairs, presumably those of the White House. One foot is upon the ground and the other rests upon the last step, while he looks fondly down after a red, red rose that has slipped presumably from his buttonhole and is falling to the ground. The whole pose is intensely aesthetic and strongly reminds one of “Bunthorne” in Patience. It is too bad to think of our good looking Arthur meandering down through the coming years as the “Dude” President.
The Meridional (Abbeville, Louisiana), October 20, 1883, page 2.
But meander through the years he did.
During the “Dude” craze of 1883, political cartoonists lampooned the President’s fancy dressing habits:
The “Dude President” was no Imelda Marcos, but he is said to have had “33 suits of clothes, 21 pairs of shoes, and 165 pairs of pants, at the same time”:
Ironically, perhaps, another “Chet” (played by Bill Paxton in the classic teen-comedy, Weird Science, called his brother and hisfriend “Dudes,” after Lisa (Kelly Le Brock) turned him into a turd.
Arthur, on the other hand, did not turn into a turd – he became less of a turd after taking office. He had been placed on the Republican ticket with Garfield, a reformer, to placate his own, New York party-machine wing of the party. But when Garfield was assassinated early in his term, Arthur continued Garfield’s reform policies, to the surprise of many onlookers.
Before he appeared at all in the Presidential campaign, “Chester A. Arthur,” or more familiarly “Chet. Arthur,” was in the very centre of New York “machine” politics, and by merit held a very “bad eminence” among a band of professional politicians whose tongues and hands were alike misemployed. For seven years he held the collectorship of the port of New York, one of the biggest “spoils” in the possession of the party. He was removed by President Hayes in the interests of reform, and then he made himself so prominent by political “mud-throwing” that nothing but a very high office could buy him, and with him the vote of New York. His nomination for the Vice-Presidency was simply a sop to the more disreputable political elements of his city, and the life of Garfield was watched with greater anxiety because “Chet. Arthur” stood next in succession to supreme authority. Responsibility, however, exerted its usual sobering effect, and if his presidency was not strikingly good it was at least not strikingly bad.
The Pall Mall Budget (London), Volume 34, Number 948, November 25, 1886, pages 5-6.
Early in his career as an attorney in New York City, long before he became part of a corrupt political machine, Arthur accomplished some good works. He helped win the freedom of eight slaves who were passing through New York with their “master.” He also helped desegregate the New York City transit system by winning the case of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who had been denied a seat on a streetcar because of her race.
Chester A. Arthur was not always a bad man; but he was always a “Dude!”
President Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt was a wealthy twenty-five-year-old New Yorker in 1883; a prime target for “Dude” taunters. As a studious and industrious man, however, he was not the proto-typical dude; but that did not keep him, or any of the Roosevelts, safe. His uncle Robert, for example, was branded a dude in May 1883:
When Mr. Robert Roosevelt, of New York, arose in the Legislature of the State to denounce something or other, attention was attracted by his affected manner and his faultless and somewhat finical attire. He talked too long, and a restive member rose and begged the Clerk to read as germane to Mr. Roosevelt’s remarks an extract from a newspaper which he sent to the Clerk’s desk. When the reading began it was found that the extract was a doggerel poem beginning:
Butler Citizen (Butler, Pennsylvania), May 16, 1883, page 1.
One year later, it was Teddy’s turn. It happened at the 1884 Republican National Convention[ii]; Teddy’s national, political coming out party:
A DUDE SCENE.
And now followed the most comical scene of this or any other convention. When there was a little lull in the Blaine jubilation, Foraker . . . said: “I move that this convention take a recess until 7 p.m.”
His words beyond “recess” were not heard further than his immediate surroundings, for yells of “No! no!” and “Ballot! Ballot!” went up and down and all around and caromed on the air from delegates and galleries until hell reigned again. The New York independents, whom the Blaine papers disrespectfully style “political dudes,” were on their ears and feet at the same time. . . .
Wm. Walter Phelps, from New Jersey, mounted a chair and young Roosevelt, the par excellence political dude from New York, just in front of him – both wildly gesticulating with both hands and talking as fast and as loud as they could yell.
St. Paul Daily Globe, June 7, 1884, page 1.
After the convention, Teddy Roosevelt moved out to the Dakota Territory to live and work as a rancher for several years; when he first showed up, he was considered a “Dude”:
Roosevelt’s Dude Outfit
Young Fellows from New York Who Didn’t Take with the Cowboys.
“It was in 1885 that I first saw Roosevelt,” says H. W. Otis, of Peshastin, Wash., in Success Magazine. . . . .
“There were five or six young fellows from New York with Roosevelt, and we called them ‘the dude outfit.’”
St. Tammany Farmer (Covington, Louisiana), February 24, 1906, page 2.
Over time, he showed himself to be more than just a “Dude”:
Theodore Roosevelt would not be taken for a New York dude in his frontier garb among the cowboys out in the Bad Lands. Parties recently stole his boat, and Theodore made affidavit in his mind that he would have that boat if he had to follow it to the Gulf of Mexico. He took two men with him, and overtook the thieves about 100 miles down the river. They showed fight, but were captured and brought back, and are now reposing in jail at Mandan. They will have quarters at Bismarck in time.
St. Paul Globe, April 21, 1886, page 5.
By 1899, Roosevelt’s friends, the Eaton Brothers, had established the first, “Dude Ranch” in Medora, North Dakota; so-named because they entertained Eastern “Dudes,” like Roosevelt, who went out West to experience some Western adventure:
What Would Ben Corbin Do?
The Mandan Pioneer tells of the Eaton Brothers’ “dude” ranch at Medora where debilitated youths from the east spend the summer and rusticate among the Bad Lands, become strong and lusty in the invigorating air and indulge in genuine wolf hunts.
Bismarck Weekly Tribune (North Dakota), June 16, 1899, page 6.
As for Roosevelt, he left the Dakota Territory in 1886, and went into politics full-time; eventually rising to the Presidency.
His influence also left a lasting impression on children’s stuffed toys, women’s lingerie, and the color palette.
Perhaps he had always been more “Dude” than cowboy.
[i] I could not find a record of the portrait on the National Portrait Gallery’s “Portrait Search” page.
[ii] Coincidentally, this was the same convention at which the idiom, “jump on the bandwagon” first came to prominence.
[iii] The Billings Gazette (Montana), July 12, 1904, page 1.